Mind the gap – between the Ideal World and the Real World

Does your life “measure up”?

It’s only since my daughter started learning maths that I’ve noticed how much our culture likes to count and measure things.  It’s so “normal” that I doubt we even realise we’re doing it much of the time.

2017. Not just “the year”, but a measure of years (and only one of many). Our ages and birthdays.  Time. Our weight.  Money in our bank account.  Number of Facebook friends/likes.  And, of course, it’s everywhere in the world of school and work – grades, sales targets, appraisal scores, KPIs.

We’re so obsessed that we even try to measure things that can’t sensibly be measured.  Who is the prettiest, the thinnest, the nicest?  Which drawing is deserving of an “A” grade?  Who is our “best” friend?  Which is the coolest brand to be wearing/driving right now?  Which is the “best” school in the area?  Am I a Helicopter Parent, a Slummy Mummy, a Hipster? Who is the most expert at a subject?  Whose views are worthy of being heard?  Whose life looks the best?  Am I “old”?  How happy am I?  Is my life “worthwhile”?  Am I “doing my best”?

(I got a bit carried away there – there’s so much material.  I bet you can think of a lot more.)

It matters because in life, as in the business world: “What gets measured gets managed”.   The more things we (or others) try to measure in our lives, the more things we feel the need to compete in, judge, “manage”, control, maybe even outright lie about.

And that comes with a high cost – in time, energy, money, wellbeing.

When we feel anxious, it’s more than likely because we are measuring.

  • Have I done enough work to get an A/ a Very Good at my appraisal/ a promotion?
  • Am I beautiful/handsome enough?
  • Do I have enough time to do all that I want?
  • Have I achieved all I wanted to by this birthday?
  • Will I achieve all I want to this year?
  • Is my house tidy/modern/clean enough?

And when we feel bad, it’s because we think that we don’t “measure up” (I’m not handsome enough/my clothes are not cool enough/my life is not exciting enough/ I wasn’t kind enough/I don’t have enough money).

But do we want to be always competing, measuring, feeling like we’re falling short?  What purpose does it serve? Is it inevitable?

Or is there another way?

Let’s look at what’s really going on here.  When we feel “less than” we are measuring ourselves against an Ideal World – beloved of lifestyle blogs, tv programmes, business managers, Instagram pages, advertisements and magazines, and other (also anxious) people who think they want to live there.

Compared to the Ideal World, we will never be beautiful enough, healthy enough, kind enough, smart enough, travelled enough, popular enough.  Because we live in the Real World.

The gap between the Ideal World and the Real World is how we define “enough”.  It’s the job of the people who want to sell us stuff or work us harder to “mind the gap”.  Keep it wide enough that we feel Not Good Enough – so we work more/ spend more to keep up, get help, or make ourselves feel better about our “shortcomings”.

The Ideal World will always be with us.  But how we respond is our choice, and we don’t have to buy it.

There are counter-measures we can use, to bring ourselves back to the real, imperfect, messy world, where we and all the other real people belong .  Where we can be more accepting, compassionate, creative, forgiving, kind and effective.

The next time you feel anxious or “less than”, pause for a moment and try one of these.  [*But first please see my comments in the footnotes.*]

Just let go

Just breathe and notice the thought or feeling passing through as you might notice someone walking by on the street.  Notice it come and go in a detached way, maybe smile at it, then get on with your life.  You can literally shrug your shoulders as you do.

Make your thoughts explicit and address them

If you have the time and space, say the thought out loud or write it down.  It might be specific and useful, like “Oh no I forgot the dry cleaning”.

Or it might be more general and unhelpful, like: “I don’t have enough time”, “I hate my job”, “I feel old”, “I’m too fat/ugly/boring”, “I have no friends” .  Many of these generalisations do not survive the light of day.  Just saying them out loud or writing them down tends to bring up counter-arguments and gets you working on what you want to change.

Change your focus

Find positives and things to appreciate when you feel like you’re falling short.  Be kind to yourself.  You may be getting older, but you are still healthy, for example.   You may have upset someone, but you didn’t do it on purpose.

You can also keep little mantras handy, to help you re-enter the real world and lift you up.  I like these:

  • “There’s the ideal world and then there’s the real world”;
  • “You’re as young today as you will ever be”;
  • “I’m only human”;
  • “It’s all good”.

Find and create what works for you.

Laugh at yourself

And, my personal favourite counter-measure: humour.   The next time you are feeling like you don’t “measure up”, say to yourself in a mock horrified voice: “OH MY GOD! (gasp) I’M NOT PERFECT!!!!” Guaranteed to bring you back to the real world in no time.

In the Real World, you measure up just fine.


*Please note: The above examples are designed for people with fairly mild, sporadic anxiety.  If your anxiety causes you distress or feels crippling to you, or examining your thoughts only makes you feel worse, then please consider seeking professional help.

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